American Ultra is being sold to the masses as a crazy, fun stoner action-comedy starring both Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart as stoner lovers, reuniting the two actors once again after 2009’s Adventureland. Don’t let the cool looking posters and the deceivingly fun red-band trailer fool you; American Ultra isn’t a comedy by any means. Rather, it’s a an unfunny and joyless mix of stale stoner comedy and actioner that offers too few laughs and a tone that’s entirely too serious. Given the fun setup and cast, this is supremely disappointing.
Mike (Eisenberg) is a lowly convenience store clerk with nothing going for him, except his girlfriend Phoebe (Stewart, whom he loves very much. He carries an engagement ring with him, waiting for just the right moment to propose. The two live together in a dingy home and spend their time smoking pot and little else. Except for Mike’s severe anxiety disorder, which causes him to vomit if the urge to leave their small West Virginia town ever comes up, the two lead a fairly normal life – at least as normal as two perpetually stoned young lovebirds can be.)
Meanwhile, things are brewing over at CIA headquarters. The Ultra program, where normal people are turned into sleeper agents without their knowing, has been ordered shut down by Adrian Yates (Topher Grace). This means Ultra agents are to be killed, a group, as it happens, includes Mike. Victoria Lassiter (Connie Britton), the program’s nurturer and creator, tries to stop Yates from killing Mike by activating him so he can at least having a fighting chance to defend himself. Unbeknownst to Mike, he’s a killing machine, using spoons and metal dust pans to take out people.
OK, with a setup this ludicrous surely the fun and games should be starting, right? Fat chance. Despite how all this sounds, the previous tone is deadly serious and significantly lacking in humor. I figured that as soon as the action kicked in and the violence began the film might follow suit and pick up the energy. Sadly, that wasn’t the case and the same heavy, melancholy tone continues to linger throughout like a cloud of bad cannabis.
Which is strange because the actual film felt so sedated, almost as if the writers (which include no less than Max Landis) were betting on the individual elements to gel and that joy would manifest itself. Don’t get me wrong, I thought the action scenes were easily the highlight; they were bloody and clearly meant to be funny, at least that’s the impression I got. Speaking of funny, I assumed the mere presence of John Leguizamo would help lighten the mood, that he’d bring his brand of abrasive comedy, which I always seem to enjoy. Nope – he’s as underused as everyone else here playing Mike’s drug dealer, Rose.
American Ultra is a film that never really starts, stalling out before it even gets out of the gate. Its being sold as a stoner comedy, and there are elements of that here; same with the action parts, which are easily the film’s best moments. It’s just that things never quite come together, making what could have otherwise been a fun and unique black comedy less than the sum of its parts. I think this is a shame, because there are few things more embarrassing than setting your sights to be a stoner comedy – the genre’s designated bottom rung – and failing at it.